Know Your Plants – Annual vs. Perennial

Annual vs perennial-A lush border flower garden and planters filled with annual and perennial flowers.
My Garden Life
March 13, 2017
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What is the difference between annual and perennial plants? A question we are asked so often and one that, once answered, can transform your green spaces. Understanding the difference between annual vs. perennial plants is the key to creating a harmonious garden design; one that offers a continuous flow of color, flowers, fragrance, and great foliage textures. Whether you are creating a single mixed planter or a spacious garden border, a thoughtful combination of annuals and perennials will keep your garden space inviting and interesting through all of the seasons.

Annual vs. Perennial Plants – What is the Difference?

Perennial plants are all about staying power. They grow from the same spot year after year. Once a garden is planted with perennials, it doesn’t need much maintenance to look great season-after-season. Annuals on the other hand have one life cycle (a growing season) before they die off. Annual plants often have longer blooming periods that can attract pollinators like bees to your garden.

Small raised bed with daylilies and zinnias

What is an Annual Plant?

Annuals are plants that grow for just one season and have to be replaced each year. They are started from seed. You can buy the seed and try growing plants yourself, or you can purchase the plants already growing in packs and pots at your local garden center.

The lifecycle of an annual plant starts with germination of the seed followed by growth, blooming, seed production and eventually death – either from winter’s freezing temperatures or the natural end of the plant’s lifecycle. Annuals bloom like crazy from spring through autumn in an effort to produce as much seed as possible in a growing season. The next generation is then started again from seed.

In recent years, plant hybridizers have introduced more varieties that produce sterile flowers. When plants don’t produce seeds then all of a plant’s energy goes into growing and flowering, instead of seed production. The result is a plant that still produces lots of flowers, but that is low maintenance because there is no need for “deadheading” (that is, removing faded flowers and seed heads).

Annual flower garden-zinnia-salvia-dianthus-marigold

Advantages of Annual Plants

  • Instant garden gratification – You can purchase annuals in full bloom and ready to plant.
  • Available in a wide array of flower colors and forms.
  • Annuals produce flowers over the longest season possible and with the least amount of care compared to perennials and flowering shrubs.
  • They encourage your creativity! You can easily and instantly change your color scheme to decorate for a special occasion, or simply to suit your mood, just by changing out the plants.
  • Annuals are usually inexpensive compared to other landscape plants.
  • Containers of flowering annuals are a great way to bring life to decks, balconies, and paved spaces.
  • Annuals usually grow quickly and bloom through multiple seasons.
  • Great for filling in spaces between newly planted perennials and shrubs to give the garden a lush, full look until the permanent plants fill in.
  • Perfect for growing in planters and hanging baskets since they are unlikely to outgrow the confined space in a single growing season.
  • Easy cleanup in the fall – just pull the plants from the ground and toss them in the compost.
  • Easy to create a large splash of color when identical plants or colors are planted together as a mass.
  • The continuous flowers they produce are an invitation for bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects to enjoy your garden.
  • Those who live in cold regions with short growing seasons can group annual flowers closer together to create quick, high-impact color.

What is a Perennial Plant?

Perennials usually live for many years and become a permanent part of your landscape. Perennials grow and bloom during the warm months and the roots go dormant for the winter. The top of the plant dies and can be cut down to an inch or two for the winter, or allowed to remain until early spring to add interest to the winter landscape (and refuge or nesting materials for wildlife). The new plant will emerge from the roots in the spring. Be sure to cut the old foliage off before the new growth emerges to keep the fresh growth tidy and healthy.

Cottage garden-lupine-geranium-scabiosa-lambs ear-heuchera

Perennials may spread by seed, runners, or roots. They bloom for a specific season; spring, summer, or fall depending on the plant species. You can expect most perennials to reach mature size in three to five years. Keep this in mind when planting and allow enough space for the plants. Check the plant label for recommendations on proper spacing.

New planting of perennial and annual plants with good spacing between plants.

Advantages of Perennial Plants

  • Perennials are a great investment. You buy a plant once and can divide it a few years later to add plants to your own landscape or to share with others.
  • Available in a wide range of flower colors and foliage textures. Many perennial plants are grown just as much for their beautiful foliage as their flowers.
  • Many perennials have fragrant flowers that add a rich dimension to the total garden experience.
  • Perennials create a permanent structure and framework to the landscape that can then be accented with annual blooming plants.
  • Varieties are available for different light levels and water needs.
  • Evergreen species are available that bring color and beauty to dreary winter landscapes. These are plants with leaves that stay green all year-round.
  • Perennial flowers are ideal for supporting bees and other beneficial garden insects that rely on flower pollen for their survival.
  • Because perennials usually bloom for one season, they add excitement to the garden. Each season will bring a new show of colors and changes to the overall look of the garden.
  • Lots of perennial flowers have long stems, perfect for cut flower arrangements.
  • Many perennials grow well in containers and can be mixed with annual blooming plants to create unique combinations of color and textures.
  • Varieties are available in an array of sizes, from low groundcover types to species that grow several feet tall. Include different heights and forms to add depth and dimension to your landscape.

Top Ten Annuals and Perennials for Sun and Shade

If you’re just getting started with flower gardening and need some ideas for what to plant, we’ve listed some of the most popular annual and perennial plants that you should consider too. These are tried and true varieties that gardeners rely on year after year. Be sure to determine the light level in your planting area before you go plant shopping so that you can choose plants that will grow best under those conditions.

10 Sun-loving Annuals

10 Shade-tolerant Annuals

10 Sun-loving Perennials

10 Shade-tolerant Perennials

Annual and perennial plants work together to create colorful, fragrant garden spaces that improve your natural environment and soothe the senses. Both types of plants can also be used to create colorful mixed container plantings for those restricted to gardening on a deck, terrace, patio, or balcony. To learn more about growing perennial plants in containers see our article on Container Plants That Come Back Every Year.

Annual vs. perennial-Pot filled with colorful annual flowering plants

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